Foreign workers, foreign languages

Each time I return to Malaysia, I eat dim sum, or as it’s known in Australia, yum cha. Pushing trolleys of bamboo steamers and plastic plates, waiters and waitresses call out har gaw (prawn dumplings), siu mai (pork dumplings), dan tat (egg tarts).

Jen
Jen

Without looking up at their faces, I cannot distinguish if the speakers are Chinese or Burmese, so perfect is their pronunciation. As I travel through Singapore and Malaysia, the language acquisition of foreign workers never ceases to amaze the English teacher in me. In class, my worksheets and role playing exercises cannot achieve the same results.

It was with lofty ideas of learning how to improve resettlement services that I embarked on this story collecting journey – forty years of refugee resettlement and six stories, the stories winding through thirteen countries. But as I near the the end of it, I realise my folly.

Heck, I’m not even an hourly paid instructor at TAFE anymore. What hope do I have of improving the delivery of English in Australia? To persuade employers to give migrants a chance? Use an apprentice system, perhaps coupled with tailored English lessons. Language has to be used to be acquired. Classroom teaching alone will never deliver.

In interviewing people and writing their stories of forced migration, I was, I think, at a deeper level, looking for an excuse to seek out such stories because my students had made my predictable life more interesting. They were unemployed, being paid to attend math and English lessons, but they made me laugh and put my daily inconveniences into perspective. I felt more alive, more human, more in touch with the world for having known them.

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Boy

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World Bank Photo Collection: A construction site in Kuala Lumpur

I’ve only just realised the significance of my encounter last week with Rashed, the owner of Loveon Cafe and Deli in Adelaide. It was not the Bangla breakfast – poached eggs with lentil soup, not the iced coffee, nor the hand-made clay earrings from Bangladesh; it was the first time I have had a conversation with a Bangladeshi.

This is surprising because I return to Malaysia every year, temporary home to tens of thousands of Bangladeshis; they are everywhere but everywhere unseen. They might lay bricks in construction sites, make beds in hotel rooms, fill up cars at petrol stations but I’ve never had a conversation with any of them.

‘Full tank,’ is probably the most I have ever said. Aside from the obvious language barrier, there is something else that prevents me from asking even a simple, ‘How was your day?’ – the knowledge that that in all likelihood he hasn’t seen his family for months, is sending almost all of his pay home, and his employer-provided accommodation is not exactly the Hilton. This knowledge makes me feel that the question would be insensitive at best, patronising at worst.

Our forefathers used to be barred from the Selangor Club, where colonialist played tennis and drank at the bar, native workers bringing them them clean towels and drinks. It still irks me when I read of someone calling for ‘boy’ in period novels – a native servant could be fifty years old, but to his employers, he would still be ‘boy’.

We who have known how humiliating it was to be regarded as inferior, what it was to be regarded as less intellectual, less capable, less civilised, do we treat Bangladeshis, Indonesians, and Burmese, as a lesser class of people?

There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where some people have to leave their homes, to work in another country for years, in order to provide food for their families, or money for their children’s schooling.

My paternal grandmother left her family in Menglembu, Perak, to work as a maid in Penang up north. She only returned during Chinese festivals a few times a year and as a result my father never really had a close relationship with her, but at least she was still in Malaya.

In two generations we have moved from a society of servants to a society with servants.  May we remember where we came from and treat our foreign workers as we would have liked our grandmothers and grandfathers to have been treated.